‘Detroit’ Movie Review: The Country We Used to Live in and in Some Ways Still Do
It’s been five years since we’ve seen a film by Kathryn Bigelow, her last film being ‘Zero Dark Thirty.’ Bigelow, in her first film since ‘Zero Dark Thirty,’ unfolds the story of an incident of police terrorism at the prime of the 1967 Detroit riots. Bigelow, along with an amazing cast of John Boyega, Algee Smith, Anthony Mackie, John Krasinski, Will Poulter, Jason Mitchell, Jacob Latimore, and more take us all back to an awful time in American history. As this film highlights police raids and riots back in 1967. In its most gruesome and realistic attempts at authenticating the country we used to live in, and in some ways still, do.
The riots were a way of protesting police brutality, racism, segregation, poverty, injustice, among other issues. Almost a week long of rioting was done. The riots led to intense violence, guns and shootings, bloodshed, looting, burning buildings, and dead bodies. Police beat civilians, as well as harassing and killing people. Including a 4-year-old girl who was mistaken for a sniper by an officer who shot her through a window.
“I Need You to Survive the Night.”
Bigelow recreates the 1967 riots in the city through one of its most notorious, yet largely forgotten incidents. Two days into the riots, a group of Caucasian police officers harassed and murdered a group of African – American teenagers at the Algiers Motel, and tried to cover it up. After an illustrated prologue, the film takes viewers into the after hours of a club at 12th and Clairmount Avenue where, in the early hours of Sunday, July 23, Detroit police officers conducted a raid on a party being thrown for a returning Vietnam veteran.
Bigelow, instead of dealing with the Detroit riots, and just simply showing us the chaos, Bigelow confines her story to mainly one location. The Algiers Motel where a group of young African-American men, seven in all, and two Caucasian women, take refuge from the mayhem taking place on the chaotic streets. The streets are filled with police and troops who are waging a kind of open urban warfare with the community itself. Unexpectedly, a man, feeling reckless in the act of stupidity and rebellion, fires a starter’s pistol out the window. The troopers and the police, led by a racist officer called Krauss (Will Poulter) and two other officers, raid the motel and are convinced there is a sniper.
The movie is very character driven, and at times, it feels as if the riots were secondary. The film has a decent balance for our multi-dramatic characters. This film does have a lot of characters, and some feel more fleshed out than others. The most well-rounded character for me was actually Larry Reed, played by Algee Smith (‘The New Edition Story’). Larry Reed of The Dramatics, we see Larry as a young man before The Dramatics made it big time, and became R&B icons in the music industry. From the very moment, we are introduced to Larry and the rest of the group; you can’t help but feel sorry for them and their situation. A concert at the Detroit Fox Theatre suddenly is canceled, and this crushes Larry’s heart, and we can see why. He has an amazing voice and tons of passion in his soul. This leads to Larry and the rest of the group trying to head home, but they have to stop at a motel because the streets aren’t safe. Finally landing at the Algiers Motel, where a group of brothers is hanging out, flirting and partying, along with two young white women from Ohio. Larry and his buddy pay for a room at the motel. Everything seems to settle down until the starter pistol goes off. It really is an example of being at the wrong place and the wrong time.
A Horror Movie Becomes a History Lesson
It’s honestly surprising to see Will Poulter (‘The Maze Runner,’ ‘The Revenant’) play such a sadistic and out of control police officer. At the beginning of the movie, he discusses how the police have let down the black community. However, in the next scene, he runs out of his car and shoots a black man in the back for stealing groceries. I believe they were trying to make him a young, sympathetic cop who lets power get to his head. But as soon as he goes to the motel, and harasses these people, I think all that sympathy just went out the window. I’m a nice person, but at times, I couldn’t help but think, “Man, f*ck this dude!” He was considered a while back to play Pennywise The Clown in the upcoming remake of Stephen King’s IT. I’m sure he would have made a terrific Pennywise The Clown. But he scares me more in this movie as a normal looking man, than him in creepy clown makeup ever will.
Anthony Mackie (‘The Hurt Locker,’ ‘Captain America: Civil War’) plays the returning Vietnam veteran in this film. He is a powerful presence in just a few scenes, while ‘Star Wars’ star John Boyega serves as a kind of angelic presence, hovering near the events and yearning for peace.
Boyega is supposed to be the character we relate to the most, and we see the situation through his eyes. Boyega plays Melvin Dismukes, a private security guard, is assigned to protect a grocery store from looters and ingratiates himself with the Guardsmen, troops, and other officers. Now when it comes to my boy, Boyega, I do like him as an actor. He plays a good-hearted character who wants to keep the peace. I do think he is the most complicated character in the movie. He constantly has to watch what he says, where he says it, and hold back some of his true feelings. Sometimes all he can do is just sit back, watch, and be quiet because he knows things will become worse. I don’t want to spoil the movie, so I’ll just say, even though he does good deeds, some good deed are unnoticed or gets you punished. He doesn’t have much dialogue in the movie. However, through his facial expressions, you can see his pain and frustration, and I don’t think that talent is getting enough credit.
My biggest issue with the film would be that at times there is too much going on. Not enough time to really care for each character individually, and at times it feels as if we are watching three different movies happening. By this I mean it feels like they have three different scripts all dealing with the riots and these characters, but they mash those three stories into one. I’m not saying the movie has schizophrenia or anything like that because the movie does try to work with balancing out all these different stories, tones, and characters. They all do come back around and lead to the theme and central points of the story.
Now, this is based on a true story, and I’m glad that this movie has been made. I knew about the Detroit riots before this movie. However, I did not know the story within the story of the horrific incident at this motel. This is just my opinion, but I believe that certain movies dealing with history should be shown to students in our schools. Movies like ‘Lee Daniels’ The Butler,’ ‘Selma,’ ‘Hidden Figures,’ and this film as well, because they are a real history lesson for everyone, and that sometimes our school history textbooks don’t fully acknowledge.
Much like ‘The Hurt Locker’ this movie does a really good job at building up the tension. I had to wait until the end credits to see who did the camera work, and even look it up on ‘Google.’ Bigelow is once again working with the ‘Hurt Locker’ cameraman Barry Ackroyd. I enjoyed how being in this small setting most of the time allowed viewers to occupy the same psychic and physical space as our characters, who spend most of the movie lined up with their hands against a motel wall, being beaten, screamed at, and simply fearing from one moment to the next whether they’ll live or die.
Furthermore, I’ve heard and read reviews about how this movie is very hard to watch because of all the violence that takes place. I personally have to disagree with that. What makes it hard to watch, is seeing the mental torture these officers commit against these people. From what I’ve personally read, and heard, is the violence that is on the screen is not even close to the level of real violence that was put on these people.
Overall, I can see why this film would make some people feel uncomfortable. A violent film dealing with race and political issues may not sound like a good time at the theater. However, that does not mean it is a bad movie. The real uncomfortable situation for me was seeing the mental abuse these individuals had to face, and how our history was like a horror movie. ‘Detroit’ works as a horror movie and a history lesson that works for everyone. It is a reminder of the country we used to live in and in some ways still, do. Movies like this provide us more than a history lesson and good filmmaking. They provide us with insight, knowledge, a look at our past, and how we can change our future for the better. For me, there are times I feel like too much is going on, and I wish we would have gotten more character development. Also, at times it feels like the pacing is just a little off, especially towards the ending. I believe ‘Detroit’ earns a 9/10.